By Arthur James November 1969, on a darkening eve, we met upon a jungle trail. I felt the terror of death. Our encounter startled each one of us. Two North Vietnamese soldiers braced to shoot me. Shaking, I wedged myself and my M-16 rifle against a tree. I shot them. "Oh, God," I groaned deeply. "What have I done? Why am I here?"
Family portraits were found on the lifeless, lacerated forms. In the long moments just after their deaths, I wondered about their mothers, their families, their friends. I was stricken with the truth I had always known: These Vietnamese men were persons, distinguished and unique individuals. They were fellow humans, not my enemies.
All night as I camped in the jungle, terrible, alien thoughts were coursing through my mind. I was sick and angry, hurt and sad for the dead men, their families, and for the American people who had sent me to kill them. I was out of harmony with goodness, with the universe, with sanity. Evil and corruption had grasped me. Evil had temporarily occupied me, engulfed me, dwelt in my body. I perceived its power to ruin. I experienced it. All of my being shuddered. I would never be the same. I hated my part in the killing.
Why did it happen? Why did I get into fighting in Vietnam? Even as I landed in the country in July 1969, I noticed the beauty of the land with its dense vegetation. Its people were wiry but delicate. I was somehow attracted to their rural, self-sufficient way of life. I can even remember sensing that they had something to teach me. I was vaguely aware of the American peace movement's contention that the war was morally wrong. I knew that I didn't believe America should attack a peasant country that was alien in culture to us. I agreed that a poor, undeveloped country should not be displaced or obliterated. But the peace movement seemed far away from me. The draft was the law. My grandfather and uncle had graduated from West Point. I had grown up full of World War II—everybody pulling together when our country needed them. I was young and idealistic; I trusted my government I did not want to believe my country was lying when it told me I was needed in the defense of democracy in the world.
So I had landed in Southeast Asia in the middle of a monsoon night, with an uninformed conscience and a hope that I would never have to take a life. I was in disagreement with American policy, yet blindly in allegiance. Vets encountered and faced death together. We had our own language, which was understood more in the gut than in the head. We used the expression "It don't mean nothin'" for a lot of things. You said it after squirting bug repellant on a leech attached to your ankle in an effort to remove the leech. You said it when the monsoon rain drenched and chilled you but cleansed your foul-smelling fatigues. You said it when a very likable buddy nicknamed Cranky lost both of his legs.
Most of us could not find justification for intervention into this foreign land. While still in 'Nam, we looked forward to fleeing home to America, which we referred to as "the world." But back home in "our world," American TV movies were portraying Vietnam veterans as maniacs seething with hatred or as deranged and disordered persons to be shunned. Some vets were called "baby killers" by the folks back home on whose behalf we were supposedly fighting. We were the most obvious symbol of a war America was losing. Veterans sensed distinctly that, for various reasons, America had ostracized us. America wanted to forget us.
The Army took two months of basic training and two months of advanced infantry training to teach me how to be an efficient killer. I spent seven months in guerrilla warfare. Then the Army spent minutes trying to debrief me as I lay on a medivac cot. I faintly remember Army personnel advising me not to tell anyone of my military mission. (I had been wounded in Cambodia, where Americans were not to be fighting officially at that time.)
For those who have visited the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, D.C., trying to sort things out, the complexity remains. Many diverse egos and factions continue to explain Vietnam. But when you look at the wall, perhaps searching for the name of someone you knew and maybe loved, the black marble reflects your own searching face back to you.
A friend explained to me that he is not yet able to visit the memorial in Washington. I asked my friend, "Have you ever wept?"
He answered with a pinched and twisted countenance, "I never have. I have to try and forget it. I can't go to the Vietnam memorial and relive Vietnam." I understand that he is afraid to let his feelings out. Avoiding the wall is his hypnotic method of pretending Vietnam never happened.
Numbness is a weapon of self-defense for him.
The wounds of war take a long time to heal. Inner bruises never seem to go away. And just as the names of our 58,000 dead cannot be erased from the Vietnam veterans memorial, our government cannot gloss over the indescribable misery we imposed on the Vietnamese. Yet our government has never admitted these crimes.
We are veterans of war; we have seen it. It is not noble in any sense. It is humiliating. Those who have been given the strength to admit this and witness to it have a moral responsibility to speak out and try to prevent future wars. In fact, for me, that is the only definite good that can come out of the Vietnam War, this war without meaning: We can help keep it from happening again.
If it didn't teach us not to repeat it, then it still "don't mean nothin’."
Reprinted by permission from Sojourners, Box 29272, Washington, D .C., 20017. Art James was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to a combat infantry unit in Vietnam from July 1969 until he was wounded in February 1970. He and his family now live and work in Maryland, were they manage a small blueberry and honeybee business. Art attended Thich Nhat Hanh's retreat with veterans in 1989, and is helping coordinate the 1991 retreat.
The following letter is excerpted from Vergil’s Life, an audio-visual work in progress by Art James and Jim Surkamp
I realized for myself what you already knew—that war brings out the brokenness in men and breaks them even further. But I don’t care anymore. We are so tired, so worn down from the death of our men. I don’t remember when I was ever a boy. I’ve got the 1000 yard stare now, Dad, from having to watch for mines and snipers. I could not count the dead on my hands and feet, all the dead I’ve seen. My mind races at high speed, I’m so aware. I see everything at a glance. But I’ve seen too damn much. Dad, it hurts more because I have to tell you these things. I can’t bear it alone. You must share this pain. Take some of it away. Dad, I’m sorry. But this war is worse than yours. Folks at home have no idea. I’ll be so glad when it’s all over.